Written by Heather Elvidge
It’s often said that we need another bank holiday, sometime between summer’s end and Christmas. Maybe we should revive Michaelmas, the popular festival that fell at the end of this month.
The feast day of St Michael is on September 29. It’s one of the old quarter days when rents were due, mayors and magistrates were elected, and debts settled.
At Michaelmas fairs surplus farm animals were sold, while workers and servants sought new employers at the hiring fairs.
But what really united the nation at Michaelmas was the traditional meal of roast goose.
From the 15th century to the early 20th, no Michaelmas Day would pass without goose stuffed with apples, served with gooseberry sauce. The birds were at their best after fattening up in the stubble fields, but there was also a strong belief that the custom brought good luck.
On Lincolnshire farms the fun started the night before. Bonfires were lit, and seed scattered for the birds, in order to bring good fortune to the fields.
In Surrey, the Eve of Michaelmas was Nut Crack Night. In this odd custom, nuts were shelled and eaten during church services. It was so noisy that the ministers could hardly be heard, although apparently none objected.
Nut Crack Night sounds like a “lawless hour”, when people believed that normal laws were suspended. A contemporary example of a lawless time would be Mischief Night.
Lawless hours used to occur at the election of mayors, or the appointment of constables and bailiffs, who’d be pelted with apples or cabbage stalks. It wasn’t only street urchins who did this – respectable persons joined in too.
Animals born at Michaelmas were believed to be equally mischievous. Cats were the exception – “blackberry kittens” were lucky, especially if they had tortoiseshell coats.
Can’t cope with a blackberry kitten? An easier way to attract luck is to pick three bramble leaves on Michaelmas Day. Keep them in your purse or wallet, and it will never be empty.
The old weather lore says Michaelmas is a day for predicting the wind. Whichever way it’s blowing on September 29 will be the prevailing direction for the next three months.
And if the day is fine, we’ll have decent weather until Martinmas on November 11.
St Michael is the archangel who led the heavenly battle against Lucifer. Medieval paintings often showed him holding scales to weigh souls for judgement. Yet the most enduring image is of Michael defeating the devil, which has inspired artists for a thousand years.
St Michael’s cult began in the east in the reign of the Emperor Constantine. At the end of the middle ages over 600 churches in Britain were dedicated to the archangel, including St Michael’s Mount off the Cornish coast.
Legend says that when Michael threw Lucifer out of heaven, he landed on earth in a thorny bramble thicket. It’s not an experience that’s easily forgotten, and so, every year on Michaelmas Day, the devil returns to spit on the fruit. That’s why blackberries turn watery – and we thought it was because of frosty autumn nights.